Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chapter 9. Turing's Test

There were often times at the Institute holiday parties and such that the theorists would have too much to drink. Generally, the combination of alcohol and pseudo-intellect was enough to cause them to delve into the deeper questions underlying their work on artificial intelligence. One subject that inevitably arose involved the Turing test.

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Many decades before, when computers as powerful as hand calculators filled galleries the size of Max’s entire lab, the mathematician Alan Turing had proposed that the true test of artificial intelligence would be an experiment in which a person conversed with either human or a computer. If the computer program was sufficiently sophisticated that it could not be distinguished from a human, then the test would show that true artificial intelligence had been achieved.

These days, the theorists argued, it appeared that the science of neural nets had reached, or would soon reach, the point of passing Dr. Turing’s test. Inevitably, one of the drunker theorists would follow up on the Turing test question by asking, now that we have learned to build truly sentient machines, what does that make us? Gods?

Max usually listened to these sorts of debates in silence, choosing instead to drink to excess and keep his opinion of the theories and the theorists to himself. Max was a quiet drunk, as a rule.

Although it was his job to help train neural nets, he was convinced that no computerized system could ever pass the Turing test if he were asking the questions. How could a machine duplicate a lifetime of experiences? If anything, neural nets learn slower than humans. Even the best program would need decades to develop the equivalent of a few years of human sophistication. He was pretty certain he could trip up any artificial intelligence system.

Sure, Linus, was an intricate creation for a computer program. But he was a pale shadow of a real penguin, and could never fool another penguin. And the same must also be true of Betty, even Herman’s Betty - surely she couldn’t pass for a human in a Turing test.

And yet, Max was racked with guilt for running out and leaving her with Spencer and the AOD. At one level he realized that the pain she displayed when her fingers were severed was just part of her programming. What on Earth could pain mean to a neural net? Computers and programs only simulate sensations, and affection, and anger. But in the past hours, Max had found that a simulation, when intricate enough, certainly gave him the impression of the real thing. That’s what virtual reality done well is all about - fooling the senses.

In the light of day, he might have dismissed the whole thing. Standing in the darkened lab with the image of Betty’s prostrate form still fresh in his mind, he couldn’t shake the sense of responsibility he had for the suffering he had witnessed, virtual or not.

OK, thought Max, they weren’t out to damage Betty so much as they wanted something from him or, more precisely, from Herman.

The device. That was what they were interested in. And unless they were simple sadists, exiting the environment was probably the best thing he could have done for Betty at that moment. After all, he was truthful at the time when he told Spencer that if he had the device, or knew where to find it, he would have gladly handed it over.

Now that he had exited the environment, he knew that it must also be what Dr. Perske was after. There had to be something Perske could tell him to help understand exactly why it was so important.

Max looked at his watch. It was nearing six in the morning. He had spent the entire night skulking through the Dark Net with Betty. He was suddenly exhausted, and realized that he had better take his drugs before he collapsed altogether. He shuffled to the lawn chair and dropped into the seat. He reached for his wallet and took out two pills. Max worked up as much saliva as he could and popped the pills into his mouth.

Dr. Perske generally started her day early, but even she wouldn’t be in before sunrise. He removed his gloves, and kneaded his temples. As the Phenobarbital began to kick in, the adrenalin that had surged through him during Betty’s torture subsided. He needed to rest until he could talk to Perske. She was expecting to get Max’s report on the contents of Herman’s environment today.

“You’re the one who’s going to have to answer some questions, Perske,” Max muttered, as he closed his eyes, and fell into a dreamless sleep.


Max was shivering when he awoke. He slipped on a lab coat that hung by the door to warm his stiff muscles.

“Processor,” he ordered, “finger Perske.”

A line of text appeared in the middle of the room. It read. “User P838, E. Perske, logged in at 07:27 hours.”

She was online, probably at the computer on her desk.

The halls were empty as he plodded to Perske’s office. The grad students and postdocs in the Institute were late risers, but a light shown through the gap of Perske’s partially open door. As usual she was one of the first researchers at work in the morning. Max pushed the door far enough to see her hunched over her keyboard and squinting at her monitor.

“Max,” she said when she looked up, “You’re in early.”

“I worked late.”

“All night?”


“Well, what do you want?” she asked, leaning back in her chair.

“That’s what I hoped to ask you.”

She squinted at him “How so?”

“What did you want me to find for you in Herman’s account?”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Anything unusual, anything out of place.”

“Uh huh. That describes just about everything in Herman’s account. Everything is out of place, and a shit load of it is damned unusual.”

Other than raising one eyebrow slightly, Perske seemed inclined to ignore the coarse language. “Sit down and tell me about it.”

As he made his way to the chair in front of Perske’s desk, he thought back to the struggle with the tentacle thing that had pursued Betty, the hole behind the cabinet, and the cloaks on the coat stand. He imagined that any one of them would qualify as something Perske might want to know about. For now, he decided to keep them to himself.

“Well,” Max replied. “Our boy was awfully security conscious.”

“What makes you say so?”

“His guard dog.”

“His guard dog,” Perske echoed.

“It’s a security device that . . .”

Perske cut him off. “I know what a guard dog is. Tell me about his. What’s it like?”

“It’s broken, actually.”

She pushed the keyboard away and rested her hands on the desk. “Really?”

“I, uh, I guess I broke it?”

“Why would you do that?”

Max shrugged, “It was a mistake. I fiddled with it a bit and broke it.”

“I see.”

The blood rose into his cheeks in embarrassment at the confession of his clumsiness. “I don’t know why a kid like him would need such a thing anyway, or where he would get it . . . other than stealing it from the National Security Agency.”

Max had hoped mentioning the NSA would get a reaction out of Perske, perhaps indicating that she knew more about what went on in Herman’s environment than she was letting on. She did nothing more than lean back in her chair and purse her lips slightly. It was an expression that reminded him of Betty3.5 as she had been perusing the shelves in the NSA warehouse. The grad students had done a good job capturing Perske’s facial character when they built the virtual assistant.

“There’s a good chance it was stolen,” said Perske. “Look, Max, do you know why Herman was here?”

Max thought he did. Herman was just another undergrad grunt helping out around the lab.

“Herman,” Perske continued, “was here as the result of a plea bargain.”

“A plea bargain?”

“Yes,” said Perske. “It was part work release and part protective custody. Have you ever heard of the Army of Darkness or a group called Drink or Die?”

Max recalled Betty’s severed fingers. “I know a thing or two about the AOD.”

“They’re loosely organized groups of hackers, the bad kind, black hats. The AOD, Drink or Die, and others like them traffic in black market software and stolen credit card information. They’ve been known to attack phone systems, including 911 emergency banks, and release viruses, that sort of thing. Herman was one of the last AOD members to be caught in an FBI sting called Operation Buccaneer. You may have read about it in the news a few years back.”

“I don’t keep up with the news much.”

“Herman turned state’s evidence to avoid jail time. He was working off his probation here. You know that he was part of the Continuously Connected Human project?”

“Sure,” said Max, “He wouldn’t shut up about it, if you ever made the mistake of mentioning it.”

“It’s a legitimate research program, but it was also a good way for the FBI to keep tabs on him. As long as he was connected, they knew where he was, and at least generally what he was up to. You could think of it as a kind of cyber house arrest.”

Sure, thought Max, and Herman was an obliging captive, except that he had found a back door that the Feds probably weren’t aware of.

“I was hoping that he had given up hacking entirely.” She shook her head and frowned. “I guess I was wrong.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter much now. Herman’s not going to be hacking anymore.”

“It’s not that simple. One of the things Herman told the government about during the investigation was some sort of super virus he was working on when he was part of the AOD, he called it the Doomsday virus, and I’m afraid that there might be a copy of it in Herman’s account.”

“So why didn’t you tell me about it? I could have just run a virus scan and found it.”

“Not likely,” said Perske. She stood up and turned away from Max to face the window. “It’s never been detected in the wild, and no virus scan is likely to find it. It was designed to bring the entire nation’s communication network down. The phone system, the power grid, air traffic control systems. Everything from emergency response systems to the nuclear defense grid would malfunction.”

“So why ask me to look for it? Why not tell the FBI?”

“For one thing, I don’t know if it’s there. And if it is, the last thing we should do is let the word get out. The AOD is very secretive. Even the FBI only knows of a tiny fraction of the members, and most of them only by their aliases. But they do know that there are members scattered everywhere. There are believed to be a few on countless college campuses worldwide, and even some in the FBI, the CIA, and even the NSA.”

The NSA, thought Max, that’s probably why we got in so easily. “That still doesn’t explain why you would pick me to find it.”

“Well,” said Perske slowly, “one thing about these hackers is they tend to be young, intelligent, computer aficionados. Basically, they fit the profile of the typical computer whiz system administrator. I couldn’t afford to let one of them find the virus before we did.”

“So you’re saying you chose me because I’m not too bright, and . . .”

“Hold on,” Perske tried to interrupt.

“. . . and so I couldn’t be a hacker. I’m too old and stupid to fit the profile.”

“Not too old.”

“I see,” Max snorted.

“Don’t take it personally. I know you’re bright, just not in that way. But this is important. I think it might have had something to do with Herman’s death.”

“You said that was an accident.”

“It probably was. But there’s a possibility the virus may have infected him, and ultimately killed him.”

“A computer virus?”


Max’s head was beginning to throb. “How can something that attacks a computer and, at worst, crashes your hard drive, possibly injure someone?”

Perske turned to face him, and bit her lower lip as she pondered her response. “OK listen, our brains are neural networks, only much more complex than the ones you work on in the lab. The virus is designed to disrupt networks of all sorts. As part of the Continuously Connected Human project, Herman was perpetually exposed to the virus, if it was in his account, and I think it might have found a way to disrupt his neural net. Which is to say, his brain.”

“So you put me at risk by sending me in there.”

“No, no,” said Perske, “Herman was connected all the time, and you would only be exposed for a short while. Besides, the virus couldn’t have killed him. Not directly. It might have disrupted his neurons, disoriented him enough that he tripped down the stairs. It’s unlikely that it would have affected you at all. The human brain has much better inherent safeguards than a computer network.”

“So,” said Max, “it was an acceptable level of risk. Thanks for the consideration.”

“Look, I’m sorry. I think it’s best if we just delete his account and leave the rest to the authorities.”

He slumped in the chair.

“Can you do that for me?” Perske asked.

“Yes,” grumbled Max.

“Thank you.”

“So it’s back to penguin backgammon, then?”

“If you don’t mind,” she said in a way that made it clear that she couldn’t care less whether Max minded or not.

Max stared at Perske and thought about telling her everything he had been through the previous night. But he wasn’t sure if it would be wise to let on that he had, among other things, gone poking around in an NSA storage site. He’d have to mull it over before he said anything further, and he was both too tired and too angry to ponder it at the moment.

“Linus and Minus will have to wait until tomorrow,” he said dryly, “I’m going home to sleep. I’m not feeling well.”

Perske made an attempt at a sympathetic smile. “Yes, do that. Take some personal time. You deserve it.”

“You bet I do,” said Max as he stood up, turned his back to Perske, and walked out. He was halfway down the hall before he heard the click of Perske gently closing her door.

“Maybe I’ll take two days,” he grumbled, and stomped his way back to the lab to look for his keys.

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